Worlds of David Darling

Encyclopedia of Science

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Encyclopedia of Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living

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An ocean for the 'Death Star'?


Saturn's moon Mimas, nicknamed the Death Star because its giant crater Herschel gives it the appearance of the famous Star Wars battlecraft, has become the latest body in the solar system to be suspected of harboring a lot of water. Astronomers have found that it wobbles, or librates, about its axis much more than expected as it travels around its orbit. Two explanations have been put forward for this wobbling: either Mimas has a core that's stretched out rather than being round, or there's a global ocean that is free to move differently than the rest of the moon. The team that made the discovery favors the ocean theory.

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Neptune's enigmatic big moon


Discovered on Oct 10, 1846, Neptune's moon, Triton, by William Lassell, while he was observing the newly discovered planet Neptune. Alone among big moons, Triton has a retrograde orbit, a feature it shares only with much smaller satellites, such as Jupiter's Ananke and Saturn's Phoebe. Since there is no way that Triton could have formed where it is with this backward motion, it must have originated elsewhere, perhaps in the Kuiper Belt, and later been captured by Neptune (if so, it would be the largest Kuiper Belt object known).

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Could life be based on silicon?

Hypothetical silicon-based life

All known life on Earth is built upon carbon and carbon-based compounds. Yet the possibility has been discussed that life elsewhere may have a different chemical foundation – one based on the element silicon. Science-fiction writers have often used this theme of silicon-based life, going back at least as far as Stanley Weisbaum's story A Martian Odyssey. But could it exist for real?

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0 to 632 mph in 5 seconds: Remembering the extraordinary life of John Stapp

Stapp braking

The Rocket Man
US Air Force surgeon John Paul Stapp was strapped, forward-facing, into an exposed chair on the back of a rocket-sled that could travel faster than a Jumbo Jet. Ahead of him was a 2,000-foot-long rail track stretching across the arid landscape of Muroc Army Airfield in California. Stapp himself counted down, his voice sounding over the intercom in the control room some distance away. At 'zero', the rockets were ignited and the sled accelerated ferociously over the nextfive seconds to an astonishing 632 miles per hour, demolishing the land-speed record.

Moments later, the sled plowed into a trough of water, which brought it to a brutally abrupt halt. No human before or since has willingly undergone such a jolt: from over 600 miles per hour to rest in a little over a second – the equivalent of hitting a brick wall at 120 miles per hour. So fast had Stapp traveled that dust particles had speared through his flight suit, raising blisters on his body. So suddenly had he slowed down that the capillaries in his eyes burst, his eyeballs bulged from their sockets, and he was left temporarily blinded. The date was December 10, 1954.

(Excerpt from my latest book, The Rocket Man)

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After Pluto, where next for New Horizons?

New Horizons flying past Pluto

With NASA's deep space probe New Horizons hurtling towards an encounter with Pluto and its moons on July 14 of next year, mission planners are scrambling to identify reachable targets beyond that. There are many objects, ranging in size from boulders to dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt into which New Horizons will plunge after its encounter at Pluto. But so far, scientists have come up empty-handed in their quest to find any that are within fuel range of the spacecraft. The largest ground-based telescopes on Earth together wirh Hubble have been used in the quest for objects that might be within reach of New Horizons. There are still plenty of data to sift through and more observations to come, so hopefully over the next few months some candidate targets will come into view.

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Albert Einstein: quantum pioneer

Albert Einstein

Mention Albert Einstein and the first thing that springs to mind is the theory of relativity, one of two extraordinary supernovae that burst upon 20th-century physics. Yet, incredibly, Einstein never won a Nobel Prize for relativity. His one Nobel medal (he surely should have got at least two), awarded in 1921 and presented in 1922, was for his pioneering work in quantum theory. If Planck hadn't fathered quantum theory that role may well have fallen to Einstein. As it was, Einstein was the first person to take the physical implications of Planck's work seriously.

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Remembering the launch of Voyager 2, August 20, 1977

Launhh of Voyager 2

Exactly 37 years ago today as I write this, a Titan-Centaur blasted off from Cape Canaveral carrying NASA's Voyager spacecraft on the first leg of its journey to the stars. Over the coming years, Voyager 2 would fly past all four gas giants of the Solar system, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, before heading out on an exit trajectory for interstellar space. Today, it continues to send backtscientific data and will do so until its nuclear batteries run dry.

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Rosetta doing triangles around a bizarre-shaped object

comet 67Partwork of alien spaceship
Comet 67P looks like a giant battered bone – or, from some angles, even a derelict spaceship!

The European Space Agency probe Rosetta is now safely in orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – although 'orbit' isn't quite the right word for how it's moving at the moment. Rosetta is actually traveling in a triangular path around 67P, firing its thrusters at the rounded corners in order to maintain a distance of about 100 km from its target. By measuring how much the thrusters have to be fired to make these maneuvers, mission controllers are figuring out the gravity pull of te comet so that eventually the spacecraft can be put into a small, stable orbit.

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The dinosaurs might have survived – and then what?

A new study concludes that the dinosaurs were killed off about 65 million years ago by a perfect storm of events, including rising sea-levels and massive volcanic activity. If the asteroid impact that applied the coup de grace had arrived a few million years earlier or later than it did, the researchers suggest, the dinosauts may have been in better shape, in terms of their diversity, to survive. They would then have continued to evolve and adapt to changing conditions, and perhaps even have survived to the present day. How smart might they have become, and what might they have looked like?

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